Toronto Blue Jays Rumors

Toronto Blue Jays trade and free agent rumors from MLBTradeRumors.com.

Quick Hits: Front Office Moves

A number of teams have made staff moves today. Here’s the latest.

  • The Padres have announced several changes to their player development staff, reports Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Randy Smith, formerly VP of player development, is now the senior adviser for baseball operations and will focus on scouting. Three others were let go from their posts. GM A.J. Preller will focus on hiring a new farm director. Per Preller, “I think it’s a matter of maybe a little different look, a chance to get some other voices in the organization.”
  • Scout Mike Russell has left the Tigers to serve as a special assistant to Diamondbacks senior VP of baseball operations De Jon Watson, writes Jason Beck of MLB.com. Russell worked with Watson under GM Dave Dombrowski while with the Marlins in the mid-1990’s.
  • Beck also learned that the Tigers are expected to replace Russell with former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield. Most recently, Littlefield has worked as a scout with the Cubs. Littlefield was with Dombrowski in Miami from 1999 through 2001.
  • The Blue Jays have hired Nationals scout Paul Tinnell, tweets Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun. Tinnell, a former scouting director with the Pirates, is credited with the signings of Michael Burgess and Steve Lombardozzi per Baseball Reference.
  • The Padres have hired former Blue Jays scout Rob St. Julien, according to another tweet from Elliott. Evan Crawford, Danny Farquhar, and Aaron Loup are among his notable signees.
  • The Nationals may target former Reds executive Bob Miller to fill the shoes of erstwhile assistant GM Bryan Minnitti, writes Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post. Minnitti resigned last week. Miller’s specializes in budgetary matters, specifically arbitration and other contractual considerations. This makes him a good candidate to fill in for Minnitti.
  • Speaking of Minnitti, he has emerged as a front runner for the Diamondbacks assistant GM role, tweets Jon Morosi of FOX Sports. Minnitti has also been linked to the Dodgers front office, so the Diamondbacks may be looking to outpace their division rivals. MLBTR profiled Minnitti as a possible GM candidate back in 2011.
  • The Astros have hired Dave Hudgens as their hitting coach, reports Adam Rubin of ESPN New York. Hudgens served for four seasons as the Mets hitting coach before he was dismissed this past May. The Mets have also re-assigned their most recent hitting coach, Lamar Johnson, to the minors. Dave Magadan and Kevin Long are candidates for the role.

Offseason Outlook: Toronto Blue Jays

On the heels of their first winning season since 2010, the Blue Jays are hoping to take the next step and reach the playoffs, though they may need to get creative with their payroll to make room for roster upgrades.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via Matt Swartz)

Contract Options

Free Agents

With the exception of Dioner Navarro‘s modest two-year, $8MM free agent contract last offseason, the Blue Jays have gone almost two full calendar years without a major transaction.  Granted, the Jays reshaped their roster with some huge moves over last two months of 2012, but the lack of any significant follow-up has raised controversy in Toronto.  Since the Jays led the AL East for over a month and finished only five games out of a wild card spot, fingers were pointed by both fans and some players at GM Alex Anthopoulos and the Rogers Communications ownership group for not making any acquisitions that could’ve put the team over the top.

A weakened Canadian dollar, the hiring of a new Rogers CEO within the last year and Rogers spending $5.2 billion to acquire NHL TV rights over its Sportsnet channels have all been cited as theories for the lack of Blue Jays-related spending.  It could also simply be that the club’s $137MM payroll represents the full budget, so Anthopoulos wasn’t authorized to spend any further.  Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that Anthopoulos will have more than that $137MM figure to work with, and it’s possible the 2015 payroll could be lower.

Certainly, lots of teams would love to have “just” a $137MM budget, though Anthopoulos doesn’t have much room to maneuver given that $96.2MM is committed to only eight players for 2015.  Roughly $11.6MM (as estimated by Matt Swartz for MLBTR) will be paid to their arbitration-eligible players if all are tendered contracts, though Josh Thole‘s contract option can be exercised instead of going through the arb process and Juan Francisco stands out as a non-tender given how little action he saw over the season’s final weeks.  That adds up to at least $104MM for 13 players, plus the Jays figure to pick up at least a few of their outstanding team options lest they create more holes on the roster.

Payroll space is of particular concern in regards to Melky Cabrera, whose solid bounce-back season will net him a significant free agent contract.  Cabrera wants to stay in Toronto and the Blue Jays want him back, yet it remains to be seen if the two sides can match up on a new deal.  The Jays will issue a Cabrera a qualifying offer at the very least, and as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes noted in his latest Free Agent Power Rankings, teams could be hesitant to surrender a first-rounder and give an expensive multiyear deal to a player with a below-average glove and a PED suspension on his record.

This being said, Dierkes still ranked Cabrera as the eighth-best player in free agency since quality bats are a rare commodity this offseason.  The Jays might be out of luck if they’re hoping the QO limits Cabrera’s market enough that they can re-sign him at a relative bargain.  In his free agent profile of Cabrera, MLBTR’s Steve Adams made the point that the outfielder might actually be the safest bet among the top available hitters — Cabrera is younger and has more defensive value than Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz, and he is a proven MLB quantity, unlike Yasmany Tomas.

Cabrera could be the litmus test for how tight a payroll crunch Toronto is facing.  Something like Adams’ predicted five-year, $66.25MM contract isn’t an unreasonable sum for a team that has designs on contending and has only one player (Jose Reyes) guaranteed money past the 2015 season.  If Cabrera signs elsewhere for such a deal, it’s a sign the Jays will continue to limit spending.

If Cabrera leaves, the Jays will have two outfield spots to fill since center fielder Colby Rasmus seems as good as gone.  Rasmus had a disappointing season overall and received only 14 plate appearances in September as the Jays instead used younger players in center field.  He seems likely to pursue a one-year deal elsewhere to rebuild his value, leaving the Jays with a combination of Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar and top prospect Dalton Pompey juggling the center field duties.  That trio and John Mayberry could form platoons in left and center, though you’d imagine that would only be the last-ditch plan if a more established everyday outfielder couldn’t be found to handle one of the two spots.  Top-tier outfield free agents like Tomas and Cruz will be too expensive, so the Jays could pursue a trade for a left fielder and let the youngsters handle center.

Casey Janssen posted a 1.23 ERA in the first half of the season and a 6.46 ERA in the second half, as he was clearly affected by a severe bout of food poisoning during an All-Star break vacation.  That late slump seemed to cinch his departure from the team, and Janssen won’t be the only notable relief arm to leave — Sergio Santos‘ $6MM option will surely be bought out after a rough season and Dustin McGowan‘s $4MM option is a bit pricey for a reliever without a defined role as a closer or setup man.  McGowan still put up solid numbers once he became a full-time relief pitcher, however, so it’s possible the team could decline the option and seek a new contract with its longest-tenured player.

Some bullpen improvements are necessary after the Jays’ relief corps posted a collective 4.09 ERA in 2014, the sixth-highest bullpen ERA in baseball.  The Blue Jays will look to upgrade the pen by adding setup relievers rather than pricey free agent closers, and then the setup options would either form a closer committee or one would eventually emerge as the ninth-inning preference.  Top starting prospect Aaron Sanchez was dominant in a relief role in 2014, though the Jays would prefer to stretch him out as rotation depth rather than use him for significant bullpen innings.

The rotation went from a glaring weakness in 2013 to a relative strength in 2014.  Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey were their usual solid selves, top prospect Marcus Stroman exploded onto the scene with an impressive rookie season, Drew Hutchison recorded 184 strikeouts over 184 2/3 innings in his first year back after Tommy John surgery and J.A. Happ rebounded from an injury-plagued 2013.  Since Happ pitched well enough for his $6.7MM option to be exercised, Toronto projects to have the same starting five next year, with young arms like Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin providing depth in the minors or the bullpen.  After two injury-shortened seasons, Brandon Morrow‘s $10MM club option is expected to be declined.

Anthopoulos isn’t ruling out the idea of adding another veteran starter in a trade, though I’d be surprised if the likes of Stroman, Hutchison or Sanchez were dealt given how the GM has so often spoken of the importance of young pitching depth.  Could Anthopoulos make a lateral move by trading Buehrle?  The idea has been broached in the Toronto media as a way to open up salary space, as while Buehrle is the definition of a reliable starter, he might not be worth the $19MM he’s owed in the final year of his contract.

I’m not sure dealing any pitching is a wise move given that the Jays would be lucky to replicate the general good health their rotation enjoyed in 2014.  If they do make a move, however, I’d suggest dealing Dickey over Buehrle.  The Jays might well have to eat some of that $19MM to make a deal happen and get a good MLB-ready piece back in return for Buehrle, while Dickey has a more palatable contract ($12MM in 2015, $12MM team option for 2016) to trade partners.  From Toronto’s perspective, Dickey is also over four years older, hasn’t pitched as well as Buehrle in 2013-14 and is a bit more of a question mark simply by dint of being a knuckleballer.

Some of the same logic in trading Buehrle or Dickey to free up payroll space applies to Reyes, who is owed $66MM through 2017.  The larger term and salary makes dealing Reyes a tall order, however, especially considering Reyes’ injury history and his declining defense; he hasn’t posted an above-average UZR/150 since 2008.  Reyes reportedly played through injuries for much of the season so the Jays will have to hope that he’ll be healthy and productive for the remainder of his contract.

Reyes, Navarro, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Brett Lawrie hold down everyday positions around the rest of the diamond, though Lawrie’s actual position is up in the air.  The Jays would prefer to see his excellent third base glove remain on the hot corner, though Lawrie saw some time at his old second spot last season and could be moved semi-permanently if the Jays can acquire an everyday third baseman.  Of course, Lawrie isn’t a stable option himself, having spent significant time on the DL in each of the last three seasons.

There aren’t many attractive 2B/3B options within Toronto’s price range in free agency, so a trade might again be the ideal route for an upgrade.  I cited the Cubs’ Luis Valbuena as a trade candidate in my Red Sox offseason outlook piece, and Valbuena (coming off a .249/.341/.435 season with 16 homers in 547 PA) might make even more sense for the Jays since he can play both second and third.  The Marlins, White Sox and Rockies are all teams with second base depth that could be available in trades, and there’s plenty of room for improvement given that Toronto’s second basemen combined for only 0.5 fWAR in 2014.

Right now, Ryan Goins and Steve Tolleson are the top choices to platoon at second base, while Maicer Izturis will be in the mix.  Izturis had a terrible 2013 season and was injured for almost all of 2014, so his three-year, $10MM contract has thus far been a bust for the Jays.  Munenori Kawasaki was outrighted off the Jays’ 40-man roster but there’s a good chance the fan favorite infielder will be brought back as a minor league depth option.

A broken foot limited Adam Lind to only 318 PA last year, yet his injury history and inability to hit left-handers don’t offset his value as a righty-smashing bat.  Lind posted a .942 OPS against right-handed pitching in 2014, so expect the Jays to exercise his $7.5MM option and use him in his usual role as a primary DH and part-time first baseman.  Mayberry or Valencia fit as right-handed hitting complements to Lind at DH, or Reyes could even see some action at DH as an effort to keep him fresh.

Anthopoulos has stressed durability as one of his key musts for any new player, which goes towards a general team-wide goal to cut down on injuries and add bench depth.  It’s no coincidence that the Jays’ red-hot stretch in May and early June came when they had almost all of their key performers healthy at the same time.  They lacked the depth to withstand multiple injuries, however, and ultimately fell apart around the time when Encarnacion, Lind and Lawrie’s DL stints overlapped.

With promising young talent and and a very good veteran core, there is a lot to like about the 2015 Blue Jays on paper.  They could be close to being serious contenders, and yet if the youngsters don’t pan out or the veterans start to decline, the Jays’ window of contention could just as easily start closing given how many key talents are only controlled (via team options) through 2016.  The unknown payroll situation and the possibility that team president Paul Beeston could depart also adds to the winter uncertainty.  The Jays have been so mysteriously quiet over the last two years that it’s hard to predict exactly how busy they’ll be before Opening Day, though with so many areas that need addressing, the club can’t get away with another offseason on the sidelines.


Minor Moves: Bernadina, Diaz, Balester

Here are today’s minor moves and outright assignments from around the league…

  • Outfielder Roger Bernadina has elected free agency, thereby freeing a 40-man roster spot for the Dodgers, the team announced last night (Twitter link). Bernadina picked up 80 plate appearances between the Reds and Dodgers this season, slashing a combined .167/.304/.258 with a homer and a pair of steals. The longtime Nationals outfielder is a lifetime .236/.307/.354 hitter in 1480 big league plate appearances.
  • The Blue Jays announced that they have re-signed infielder Jonathan Diaz to a minor league contract with an invitation to Major League Spring Training next year (hat tip: Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith on Twitter). The 29-year-old Diaz received 45 PA with Toronto this season, hitting .158/.256/.184. The majority of his work came at shortstop, though he did see 16 innings at second base and play at least one inning at all three outfield spots.
  • Right-hander Collin Balester, who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, has re-signed with the Pirates on a minor league deal, Chris Iott of MLive.com reports (via Twitter). The 28-year-old hasn’t pitched in the Majors since posting a 6.50 ERA in 18 innings with the Tigers back in 2012, but he spent part of the four prior seasons in the Nationals’ bullpen. Balester has a 5.30 ERA in 185 innings between the Nats and Tigers.


Free Agent Profile: Melky Cabrera

A benign spinal tumor was learned to be a significant factor in Melky Cabrera‘s disappointing 2013 campaign, and the switch-hitter regained his form in 2014 as he prepared to hit the open market for the second time in his big league career.

Strengths/Pros

Cabrera hit a strong .301/.351/.458 with 16 homers, 35 doubles and three triples in 621 plate appearances this season. In three of the past four seasons, he’s batted above .300 and context-neutral stats such as wRC+ and OPS+ have each pegged him as at least 18 percent better than a league-average hitter in each of those campaigns.

Melky  CabreraA switch-hitter, Cabrera is a bit stronger as a right-handed bat, but his platoon split is minor. Over the past four seasons, Cabrera has batted .308/.350/.477 as a right-handed hitter and .309/.352/.451 as a left-handed hitter. In terms of average and OBP he’s about the same from each side, but he does offer a bit more pop against lefty pitchers.

He’s never been one to strike out much (career 12 percent), and he posted a career-best 10.8 percent strikeout rate in 2014. Cabrera’s swinging-strike rate (5.1 percent) was the 21st-lowest strikeout rate among qualified hitters this season, and his 88.3 percent contact rate ranked 16th.

Cabrera will play the majority of next season at the age of 30, so he’s a relatively young bat. Even a five-year contract would only run through his age-34 season, so it’s possible that a team could buy mostly prime years without worrying about too much of the decline phase with this deal.

Weaknesses/Cons

The elephant in the room when discussing Cabrera’s free agent stock, of course, is his past suspension for PED usage. Cabrera was hit with a 50-game suspension near the end of his tenure with the 2012 World Champion Giants, and he admitted at the time that his punishment was “the result of my use of a substance that I should not have used.” That test called the validity of his excellent 2012 numbers into question, and naysayers exuded a sense of almost vindication in 2013 when his numbers went into the tank. While the tumor can now clearly be noted as a strong factor in those struggles, some will always question how much of Cabrera’s production is legitimate.

Back to his on-field characteristics, Cabrera may not strike out much but he also doesn’t walk much or show excellent plate discipline. He’s an aggressive hacker who despite rarely swinging and missing at a pitch averaged just 3.69 pitches per plate appearance in 2014 — a figure that tied him for 105th in Major League Baseball among qualified hitters.

Cabrera once had value on the basepaths as a potential 20-steal threat, but Fangraphs pegged him with negative baseruning value in each of the past two seasons. Perhaps last year can be written off, but Cabrera stole just six bags and provided negative baserunning value even in a healthy 2014 season.

Both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved feel that while Cabrera’s arm is a plus asset in left field, he is overall a below-average defender at the position. Given his decreased speed, it would seem a stretch to suggest that he could still handle center field, even on a limited basis. Indeed, Toronto only played him there for nine innings this past season. He also ended the season on the DL for a minor injury — a broken pinkie finger sustained while sliding back into first base. The injury did require surgery.

Finally, the Blue Jays reportedly plan to extend a qualifying offer to Cabrera, so a team will have to surrender its top unprotected pick in order to sign him.

Personal

Cabrera has fit in well to a Blue Jays clubhouse that features a number of his countrymen in Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Juan Francisco, among others. He was also well-liked in San Francisco, even after his suspension. At the time, Sergio Romo made it clear that Cabrera would have been welcomed back with open arms, asking, “Why wouldn’t we want him on our team?” and referring to Cabrera as “a great teammate.”

Cabrera has taken an active role in the community in his native Dominican Republic, organizing youth league tournaments (Spanish link) and encouraging children to stay diligent with their studies while chasing their baseball dreams. Cabrera also donated both cash and food to his home country following the hurricanes of 2007 and was honored with the 2008 Munson Award for his “excellence and philanthropic work in the community,” per the Blue Jays’ media guide.

Market

Cabrera made his desire to return to the Blue Jays perfectly clear late this season, stating plainly“I stay in Toronto.” Of course, that thinking can obviously change if the Blue Jays’ offer to Cabrera — and GM Alex Anthopoulos has said he expects to make a “competitive” bid — doesn’t stack up with those that he receives from other clubs.

A number of teams will be looking for offense in a thin market for bats, and Cabrera’s will be one of the best out there. The Orioles, Tigers, Royals, White Sox, Twins, Mariners, Rangers, Giants, Padres, Reds, Phillies and Mets could all be in the market for an outfield upgrade, so Cabrera’s representatives at the Legacy Agency will have no shortage of teams with which to converse. Among those clubs, the White Sox, Twins, Rangers and Phillies would have a protected first-round pick.

Perhaps most importantly, Cabrera will find himself near the top of a thin free agent crop of hitters. Among his chief competitors will be Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez and Yasmany Tomas — an aging slugger with questionable defense, a pure DH entering his age-36 season and a 24-year-old that has yet to play in the Majors, respectively. Cabrera’s power doesn’t stack up to those players, but he’s shown a consistent ability to hit for average with respectable pop, and he offers more certainty than someone like Michael Cuddyer or Colby Rasmus.

Expected Contract

Cabrera is in the unenviable position of hoping to set a precedent. Through this offseason, no player has hit the open market with the stigma of both a PED suspension and a qualifying offer and been able to cash in on a sizable deal. Jhonny Peralta secured a four-year, $53MM pact last offseason fresh off a suspension, but he was not the recipient of a qualifying offer from the Tigers. Any number of free agent bats have cashed in after receiving a qualifying offer, including Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Carlos Beltran. While none of those deals looks enticing at this point, that’s certainly not to say that second-tier free agents with qualifying offers will continue to struggle.

Cabrera’s agents will look to make their client the first to receive a strong multi-year deal in spite of that QO and in spite of a past suspension. He does have the benefit of having performed well in a season two years after his suspension, and more importantly, there’s a case to be made that he’s the safest bat on the market. Cruz is four years older with less defensive value, Martinez’s age and lack of position will limit his market, and though Tomas is tantalizing, he’s unproven.

Ultimately, Cabrera’s contract is difficult to project, but I feel the $36-45MM figure floated past the Toronto Star’s Brendan Kennedy in a survey of rival agents was low. Cabrera can rightly claim that he’s one of the best bats on the market at a relatively young age, and that’s enough for me to predict a perhaps unnecessarily specific five-year, $66.25MM contract (Peralta’s contract with an extra year at the same AAV).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


AL East Notes: Duquette, Napoli, Minaya, Long

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe examines Dan Duquette’s unusual journey to becoming the Orioles‘ GM. A Boston-area native, Duquette realized his dream at 36 years of age when he was named GM of the Red Sox, but that came to an abrupt end in 2002 when he was dismissed by new owners, only to see the Sox — anchored by a number of players he drafted or acquired — win the World Series two years later. Duquette spent 10 years away from the game, coaching his kids’ teams, founding a league in Isarael and running a college summer team, Abraham notes. Duquette revealed to Abraham that he was offered multiple jobs that he turned down — including a position with the Braves and an adviser role with the Red Sox — because he believed he’d get another crack at a GM role. Duquette feels the time away has made him friendlier and put things into perspective; his cousin, Jim Duquette (an analyst for MLB Network), says there are distinct differences between how Dan was with the Red Sox and how he is with the O’s. He isn’t bothered as much by “little things” and is less guarded. “Baltimore isn’t Boston. It isn’t New York. That aspect has been good for him. He doesn’t take himself so seriously,” said Jim.

More from the AL East…

  • Mike Napoli has dealt with injuries to his finger, back and toe, writes Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, but despite all of those issues he’ll be undergoing surgery for a different procedure on Nov. 4 . Napoli will undergo Bimaxillary Advancement surgery in an attempt to end a career-long battle with sleep apnea. “I’ve tried numerous things and none of them worked,” Napoli told Bradford via text. “Dental mouth piece, CPAP machine, medicines … It’s just gotten to the point where I have to get this done.”
  • The Yankees have had serious dialogue about hiring Padres senior VP of baseball operations and former Mets GM Omar Minaya, multiple sources tell Newsday’s Erik Boland. Andy Martino of the New York Daily News tweets that the team would be interested in Minaya in a scouting or advisory role — not as a replacement for farm director Mark Newman. As Boland notes, GM Brian Cashman has brought former GMs into the fold before, hiring Kevin Towers as a special assignment scout in 2009 and hiring Jim Hendry to fill the same role since 2012.
  • Recently fired Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long is generating quite a bit of interest from other clubs, reports Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News (Twitter links). To this point, Long has already spoken with the Mets, Braves and Blue Jays, including a meeting with Mets GM Sandy Alderson. The D’Backs, Brewers and Pirates are all possibilities as well, per Feinsand.

AL East Notes: Shields, Melky, Jays, MacPhail

Several executives around baseball are starting to think James Shields will receive some five-year offers in free agency this winter, Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald reports.  This would be a sizable commitment in a pitcher who will be 33 years old on Opening Day, and since the Red Sox don’t like guaranteeing that many years to pitchers in their 30’s, the team could offer Shields a four-year deal with a higher ($20MM) average annual value.  If this isn’t enough to land Shields, however, Lauber feels by that point the Sox should just increase their offer to Jon Lester.

Here’s some more from around the AL East…

  • In a radio interview on The Jeff Blair Show (Sportsnet.ca’s Ben Nicholson-Smith has the audio link and partial transcript) Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said the team had had “some conversations” with Melky Cabrera about a new contract though seemingly little progress has been made.  “Clearly both sides right now can’t seem to get together for various reasons,” Anthopoulos said.  “I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to assume that there hasn’t been dialogue.  I wouldn’t assume that there haven’t been proposals exchanged.”
  • Beyond just on-the-field upgrades, the Blue Jays also need to re-establish trust between the clubhouse and upper management, Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi opines.  Some Jays players were openly upset with the front office’s lack of major spending or acquisitions over the last year, and while Davidi doesn’t cite this lack of trust as the key reason why the Jays missed the playoffs, it obviously helps to have everyone in the organization on the same page.
  • The Orioles‘ success over the last three seasons wouldn’t have been possible without former president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune writes.  While MacPhail’s departure following the 2011 season coincided with Baltimore’s return to contention, manager Buck Showalter and several of the O’s best players joined the organization on MacPhail’s watch.
  • J.J. Hardy‘s extension with the Orioles only enhances Xander Bogaerts‘ value to the Red Sox, Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal writes.  A young, controllable star at shortstop who can contribute both offensive and defensively is a major commodity, though Bogaerts obviously still work to do to establish himself on that level. “How much of a step forward Bogaerts can take at shortstop will have quite a bit to do with how much of a step forward the Red Sox can take in the American League East,” MacPherson writes.
  • In other AL East news from earlier today on MLBTR, I collected a set of Yankees Notes and Jeff Todd featured Blue Jays center fielder Colby Rasmus in a Free Agent Profile.

Free Agent Profile: Colby Rasmus

Colby Rasmus entered the year as one of the more intriguing pending free agents. Coming off of a big 2013 campaign, he rated eighth among all expected free agents in MLBTR’s first Free Agent Power Rankings installment back in March.

While his upside remains tantalizing, however, the Excel Sports Management client has yet to establish himself as a consistent presence. And the 2014 season magnified some of his weaknesses, serving as a poor platform for free agency.

Strengths/Pros

Power from a capable center fielder is a rare commodity, and Rasmus is certainly the only free agent-to-be who offers that package. Despite seeing only 376 plate appearances in 2014, Rasmus managed to swat 18 long balls and post an excellent .223 ISO (slightly better than players like Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Miguel Cabrera). That is rare air, indeed, for an up-the-middle outfielder: in terms of ISO, only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen posted higher marks among center fielders.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Milwaukee BrewersIf there were any doubts whether Rasmus could remain a consistent source of power, he answered them. Indeed, Rasmus’s 2014 campaign landed right alongside his two excellent overall seasons of 2010 and 2013 in terms of ISO. Likewise, his line drive rate (23.3%) and home run to flyball ratio (19.4%) reached new career highs, while his infield fly ball ratio declined for the fourth consecutive year.

Generally, then, when Rasmus makes contact, it has been good contact. (More on that below.) To an extent, his variations in batting average and on-base numbers over the years can be attributed to BABIP. Last year, for instance, he hit .276 and reached base at a .338 clip on the back of a .356 BABIP. When his average on balls in play dropped to .294 this year, his average fell to .225 and his OBP dropped to .287.

As Rasmus noted in a fascinating interview with Scott MacArthur of TSN.ca, he believes that he sent a lot of hard-hit balls into newly-aggressive shifts, accounting for some of the decline. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca explored that idea, and other possible explanations for Rasmus’s enigmatic bat, in a late-season piece. As Davidi notes, Rasmus suffered significant BABIP drops on both line drives and ground balls. Another oft-noted change was the departure of Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola, with whom Rasmus thrived. Though Rasmus has good things to say about replacement Kevin Seitzer, he has not seemed to mesh in working to counteract the league’s adjustments.

Despite struggling in some other ways at the plate, Rasmus still managed to produce at a better than league average clip this year (103 wRC+) thanks to his pop. He has been a consistently solid baserunner, though he is not much of a threat to steal. And while his defensive ratings have had their ups and downs, the total package is appealing. At his best, Rasmus has logged two seasons as one of the better center fielders in baseball: 2010 (4.0 fWAR, 3.6 rWAR) and 2013 (4.8 fWAR, 4.6 rWAR). And even in the rough campaigns of late — 2012 (1.0 fWAR, 1.8 rWAR over 625 plate appearances) and 2014 (0.6 fWAR, 0.9 rWAR over 376 plate appearances) – he has been at least serviceable, if not the kind of player that first-division club would hope to field.

Of course, it is critical to bear in mind that Rasmus only just turned 28 in August. That is an unusually young age to reach free agency, and could be enough to keep hopes alive for a return to the fairly impressive ceiling that he has shown in the past. Needless to say, youth, athleticism, and power are excellent attributes in any free agent.

Another key factor is that Rasmus is all but certain not to come with draft compensation attached. Teams will be much more inclined to take a chance on his talent without the need to sacrifice future assets.

Weaknesses/Cons

Defensively, advanced metrics were less kind to Rasmus this year than in the past. One year after being credited with saving his team 11 runs by Defensive Runs Saved, Rasmus checked in at a negative 7 tally in 2014. And his UZR/150 figures likewise reversed course, going from +15.2 to -15.3.

This is not the first time that those measures viewed Rasmus as a hindrance in the field, though he has tended to bounce up and down over the years and remains an average to slightly above average contributor over his career. Rasmus has explained that he was also slowed by cumulative injuries – he mentioned his hips and hamstrings – that could have had an impact.

Most worryingly, perhaps, are the changes in Rasmus’s strikeout figures. He has set career highs in each of the last two years, moving from a 29.5% strikeout ratio last year to a 33.0% clip this time around. Of course, he did succeed at that level last year, and posted his third-highest career K rate in his excellent 2010 season. As Drew Fairservice of Fangraphs wrote in exploring the “enigma” of Rasmus, he has a fairly unusual skillset with few obvious comps. Though B.J. Upton and Chris Young offer warning signs, Fairservice notes some routes to upside scenarios, even if they are arguably less likely.

Also up for debate is whether Rasmus would be better served in a platoon situation. As a left-handed bat, he generally has performed better against righties. For his career, Rasmus owns a 112 wRC+ against righties, which drops to a score of 77 against same-handed pitchers. In spite of his struggles in 2014, he actually reduced his splits to a more manageable 14-point gap.

It is also worth pointing out that Rasmus has a not-unblemished injury history. In fairness, most of the issues are not much more than typical bumps and bruises, but he has missed time over recent years with wrist, oblique, and hamstring injuries. This could, of course, be spun in either of two ways: on the one hand, some have suggested that Rasmus is injury-prone; on the other, he could be said to play the game hard and his nicks could explain some of his inconsistency.

Then, there is the fact that Rasmus sat a good bit at the tail end of 2014. Though that was obviously a reflection of a complicated situation — involving his performance, that of the Blue Jays, and the presence of younger players who had a future with the organization — it certainly did not help. If nothing else, the benching held down his stats, prevented him from showing much late in the year, and may not have sent the best signal to prospective new employers.

Personal

Rasmus grew up in Alabama and still lives there in the offseason. He is married with one child. Rasmus grew up in a very baseball-focused family, and appeared in the 1999 Little League World Series along with brother Cory, who now pitches for the Angels, on a team coached by his father.

In the above-linked interview, Rasmus intimated that he has struggled at points in his career with maintaining his love for the game. Saying that he is by nature relaxed but hard-working, Rasmus says that over-aggressive coaching has at times had the opposite of the intended effect on him. On the whole, Rasmus leaves the impression that his production on the field and enjoyment of the game tend to go hand-in-hand, and that he hopes to find an environment in which both can thrive.

Market

Rasmus is in a unique position in the market. On the one hand, he occupies the always-enviable status of being the best player available at his position, center field. In fact, it’s not even close: players like Emilio Bonifacio, Grady Sizemore, and Chris Young fall next in the pecking order.

In spite of that, it is questionable whether a club with expectations to contend would pursue the up-and-down Rasmus as an everyday option. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes has suggested (via Twitter), teams like the Tigers and Braves are in need of added production up the middle. But they might prefer to explore a trade market that could include options such as Drew Stubbs, Dexter Fowler, Jon Jay or Peter Bourjos, and perhaps Desmond Jennings. That figures to be the real competition for Rasmus.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of landing spots that might make sense. Dierkes also suggested the Cubs, and the Twins are also unsettled in center. Though Rasmus has little experience in the corners — less than 100 big league innings, in fact, all coming in his rookie year — a host of other teams might like the idea of deploying him there. It is possible to imagine interest from the Mets, Reds, Rays, White Sox, Royals, Giants, Padres, Pirates, Rangers, and Athletics. Depending on what shakes out with their current options, the Orioles, Astros, and Phillies are certainly plausible bidders as well. (Of course, unlike the center field market, there are more viable alternatives to contend with as well.)

All said, Rasmus should have a fairly broad market given his upside and defensive flexibility. Things will really open up if, as I suspect, he prioritizes fit with the clubhouse and coaching staff over contract particulars and position (if, in other words, he is amenable to taking a corner job).

Expected Contract

Ultimately, Rasmus is one of the most difficult free agents to pick a price tag for. His upside – given his age, center field capability, and power – is perhaps unmatched among this year’s crop of outfielders. Indeed, it was not long ago that it seemed likely, as MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm wrote in late 2013, that Rasmus would top the B.J. Upton contract (five years, $75MM) when he hit the market. Yet it is not plausible now, with another year of information in the books. to put him in that range.

There would appear to be two approaches that Rasmus – and interested teams – could take. First is the traditional pillow contract. In that case, Rasmus would surely look to prioritize fit, hoping to find both regular playing time and a situation that would lead to a good platform season. Position player comps are somewhat wanting: Young signed for one year and $7.25MM last year in a somewhat similar situation, though that deal emerged out of a much more crowded outfield market, and Young was both somewhat older and coming off of a rougher offensive year. And Kevin Youkilis went for $12MM over one year, though he had a significantly longer track record of consistent production but was a much older player. With market inflation and a lack of competition, I believe Rasmus would be able to reach eight figures on a one-year deal.

On the other hand, the following year’s market includes increased competition in the form of players like Fowler and Austin Jackson. And it is not hard to imagine a team that believes in Rasmus looking to take advantage of his depressed value to lock in an attractive contract, much as the Twins did last year with Phil Hughes. For a club that can tolerate his strikeout tendencies, and believes in him as an at least average defender up the middle, a three-year offer cannot be ruled out, especially given Rasmus’s age. (Remember, the Red Sox just committed $72MM to unproven 27-year-old Rusney Castillo.) Clubs could be tempted to take the risk for a chance at his upside since he is a reasonably flexible roster piece, given his left-handed bat and center field capabilities.

It is hard to gauge just how high the price could go in that scenario, but it should be noted that Rasmus can wait to re-enter the market at a young 29 and has already earned something like $17MM in his career. Given that, it is somewhat difficult to imagine him seriously considering a deal that falls shy of a $10MM AAV over a term of three years. (And it might well take more to convince him to go that route; remember, he can look to rebuild his value and hit the market again at a still-youthful 29. Two years seems undesirable from Rasmus’s perspective, though he could field such offers.) One other factor to bear in mind is that Rasmus should be able to take his time seeing how interest develops in a multi-year scenario, fairly confident that a solid one-year option will be around at the end of the day.

Ultimately, I believe Rasmus will prioritize finding the right fit over maxing his earnings, whether on a one-year or multi-year deal. I do find a make-good contract to be the likelier outcome, and think that Rasmus will be able to reach $12MM on a one-year deal. But I would not be surprised if he ultimately scores a three-year pact.


Blue Jays Claim Bo Schultz From D’backs

The Blue Jays have claimed righty Bo Schultz off waivers from the Diamondbacks, Toronto announced via press release. With the move, te Jays have two open slots remaining on their 40-man roster.

Schultz, who just turned 29, saw his first MLB action last year with Arizona, allowing seven earned runs on 13 hits and one walk (with five strikeouts) over eight innings of relief. While that limited sample does not say much about his future, it did allow Pitch F/X to get a look at his offerings. Schultz averaged just over 95 mph with his fastball, and relied on a slider and change as his primary off-speed offerings.

Schultz spent most of his time at Triple-A last year as a starter, scuffling to a 6.18 ERA over 135 1/3 frames with 5.5 K/9 against 3.1 BB/9. He threw 19 2/3 innings at the highest minor league level in 2013, with results that were just as poor in the earned runs department. But Schultz had nearly twice the strikeout rate in that stretch, during which he worked exclusively from the bullpen.


Quick Hits: Reds, Martinez, Street, Blue Jays

The Tigers and Athletics made noise at the trade deadline when they acquired David Price and Jon Lester, respectively, but now they have little to show for it, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale writes. Instead, some of the most effective moves have been the quieter ones, like the Orioles acquiring dominant lefty reliever Andrew Miller or the Giants dealing for Jake Peavy. Nightengale also notes that the Dodgers made the best move of the trading season by not dealing Matt Kemp, who hit like crazy down the stretch and so far in the postseason. Here are more notes from around the big leagues.

  • Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake and Alfredo Simon can all become free agents after the 2015 season, putting the Reds in a tough spot, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer writes. “As much as I think we’d like to be able to keep every single guy and pay them what they deserve, it’s impossible to do it here,” says manager Bryan Price. Rosecrans quotes Cueto, Latos and Leake all saying they would be happy staying in Cincinnati, but the Reds will have a tight budget, with plenty of money already committed to Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey.
  • Victor Martinez doesn’t have a monetary goal in mind when it comes to the contract he’ll sign as a free agent this offseason, but he does know how many years he’d like to receive, writes Anthony Castrovince of Sports On Earth. Martinez won’t say how many years that is, but he does say he doesn’t want to still be playing at 40. He’ll open next season at 36, which might indicate he’s looking for a four-year deal. Martinez is poised to cash in after an outstanding .335/.409/.565 season in Detroit, although Castrovince notes that Martinez’s market will be constrained somewhat because he’s a DH and because the Tigers will almost certainly extend him a qualifying offer.
  • Now with the Angels (who were just eliminated from the postseason by the Royals), Huston Street fondly remembers his time as the Padres‘ closer, writes Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune.  “When you leave someplace, you want to miss it as much as I miss San Diego, says Street. “Just because that means the time you spent there was meaningful. It was a time in my career that really set me on a very successful path.
  • Not retaining Casey Janssen will probably be the correct decision for the Blue Jays, Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star writes. Teams frequently change closers, as a look at playoff teams’ rosters indicates — the only playoff closer who has been in that position with his team for three years is Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers. Instead of worrying about a closer, Griffin argues, the Jays should address second base and the outfield.

Minor Moves: Free Agents, Blue Jays

Here are the latest minor moves from around the game.